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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Facing It

(Names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington,
D.C., photograph by Hu Totya)

In the United States, November 11 is known as Veterans Day. It honors the American veterans of all wars.

In other countries, especially the members of the British Commonwealth, it is called Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. These names reflect the original intent, to commemorate the signing of the Armistice between the British allies and the vanquished Germans, ending World War I on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. In Canada and Great Britain, especially, many people wear an artificial poppy on their lapels to recall John McCrae's poem* from the War,

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, . . .


My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way — the stone lets me go.
I turn that way — I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

~ Yusef Komunyakaa, born 1947, American poet and Vietnam veteran

* For John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, click on his name in the Labels below.

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